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Monday, 26 February 2018

Spot signs of distress in teens and how to ensure their psychological wellbeing.

Spot signs of distress in teens and how to ensure their psychological wellbeing.


Teenagers have a lot of pressure to perform academically while their bodies undergo many changes.



Today our youth experience stress on a very large scale - even from the early age of 10 years old. This is due to many reasons, including higher academic workload, pressure to perform in sport-, cultural- and other extracurricular activities, as well as social requirements. 

As a parent, you want your children to be happy and healthy. However, some parents tend to underestimate the amount of pressure their adolescent children experience. It is a parent’s duty to make sure their children know they are loved and that they are equipped with techniques on how to deal with stress. Maureen Killoran explained that, “Stress is not what happens to us, it’s our response to what happens, and our response is something we can choose.” See also our previous blog post ‘7 Techniques to help young children deal with stress’ for advice on the matter.

Remember that every child handles stress in his or her own way. Not all forms of stress is bad, but if the cause of the issue isn’t addressed it can have many negative impacts and lead to distress. Distress is considered to be extreme anxiety, which can lead to unhappiness and misery, and eventually depression. 

Some reasons why adolescents experience distress:
  1. Academic and extracurricular pressure.
  2. Not getting along with friends or being bullied – often forms of abuse (verbal or physical) is also prevalent.
  3. Pressure from friends, peers and social media platforms to be cool, popular, beautiful, smart, etc. 
  4. Not being able to get into a good university, due to lack of skills and abilities, low grades or lack of funds.
  5. Taking on the role of a parent – when living with a single parent or when both parents are constantly working, the eldest child may feel pressured to take on the traditional role of a parent and raise their siblings, and ultimately growing up too fast.
  6. Worried about the family’s financial state.

Almost all major causes of distress are rooted in fear. These fears can cause teens to over analyse their problems and experience it disproportionally bigger than what it actually is. They fail to see their circumstances in perspective and therefore fail to see the simple solution. This doesn’t mean that their fears are unfounded or unimportant. What it means is that in spite of the causes of these issues, there are always things you can do to prevent the after effects from damaging them mentally and physically in the long term. 

The easiest way to spot signs of distress is to really know and understand your child and then to look for behavioural changes outside his or her norm. If you feel worried that your child might be suffering from distress, look out for the following behavioural changes:

Physical changes.
  • Constantly worried about their physical appearance. When adolescents go through puberty their bodies change quickly – sometimes too quickly for them to feel comfortable in their own skin. It is normal that these changes will have an effect on them and it is normal for them to be concerned that they develop correctly. But, becoming obsessed over your body or appearance is unhealthy. Teens can develop Body Dysmorphic Disorder and/or other eating and exercise related disorders. Obsessing over their appearance can also distract them from what is really important, like paying attention in class. Their obsessions can damage their relationships with friends and family. They might end up doing things to their body that they will later regret.
  • Eating patterns are disturbed. They either eat a lot more or a lot less than usual. Teenagers tend to over eat when they find temporary relief in comfort food. This is harmful since when they pick up weight they are not only at risk of physical health issues, but they might also get a lower self-esteem. Distress can also cause teenagers’ appetite to disappear. It is equally unhealthy when teens don’t eat. They require healthy nutritious food in order to grow and function during the day.
  • Change in exercise patterns. Distress can cause adolescents to exercise either a lot more or a lot less. They might start to exercise obsessively, because they feel like it is the only way for them to have control over themselves when in their minds everything else is chaos. When they start being a lot less active than they would have normally been, it might be from severe stress that cause fatigue, fear, anxiety, low motivation, low self-esteem and/or depression.
  • Sleeping patterns change. They don’t sleep well or constantly want to sleep. Stress can keep teenagers awake during the night. They lie in their beds worried about their problems. When they don’t sleep enough they never fully recharge. This can influence their performance in academics, sport- and cultural activities, and also negatively influence their relationships. On the other hand, stress can also weigh them down. It may cause exhaustion and fatigue –which leads them to sleep the whole day and when they wake up they still feel tired.
  • Recurring nightmares. Teens under severe stress may be prone to having nightmares. Nightmares are also common after exposure to traumatic events. It is usually a normal reaction to stress – as a means for your brain to help you work through these negative experiences. However, if it recurs, it can become a debilitating sleeping disorder known as Nightmare Disorder (formerly Dream Anxiety Disorder). These nightmares can be very vivid and terrifying. When it starts to disturb the sleeping patters of adolescents and even cause daytime distress, it can impair many important aspects of a normal teen’s life.
  • Headaches and stomach aches. These aches which are often brushed off as being less critical temporary pain are clear signs of distress among teenagers if it occurs regularly. Their distress has manifested as physical pain in their bodies. Headaches and stomach aches can cause a lack of appetite, nausea or even the development of stomach ulcers. It can easily keep them from performing well in their school work or doing things they usually enjoy.

Changes in emotional stability.
  • Unable to control anger or sadness.  As parents we still need to let our teens experience these emotions without judgement.  It is not only emotions associated with young kids. If they feel that they can’t express themselves, they will alienate you and become distant.
  • A deep sadness surrounds them or they express feelings of hopelessness.
  • Irrational reaction or irrational outbursts. 

Changes in performance.
  • Drop in grades, even though they still devote the same amount of time and effort to their studies.
  • Bully others or are being bullied.
  • Pressure to perform well on the sport field can lead to injuries, since they push themselves harder than what their bodies are of capable of doing.

Changes in hygiene.
  • Doesn’t bath or shower regularly and they don’t “feel like cleaning up” – even though personal hygiene and appearance has never been an issue before.
  • Sweating abnormal amounts during the day for no apparent reason – not due to sport or exercise activities. This type of sweat is known as ‘stress sweat’. Sweating when sleeping is also common.

Change in outlook of their values.
  • Withdraws from family activities.
  • Doesn’t spend time with friends any more.
  • Lost interest in extracurricular activities and hobbies.
  • Talks about suicide.
  • Argues a lot with parents.
  • Shows aggressive behaviour.
  • Starts using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope.


When your teen is under distress over a long-term period, it could lead to a breakdown of the immune system and likelihood of depression. Take caution not to dismiss your adolescent child’s emotions, fears and stress as being less important or serious than that of an adult. Ensure that they feel loved and treated fairly. Tell them that they can speak freely about any stress and anxiety they experience.


In case you feel unusually worried about your child, seek professional help from a doctor, psychologist and/or psychiatrist.  You can also contact the following helplines:

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group
For counselling queries e-mail:  zane@sadag.org
Counselling line:  011 234 4837
Suicidal Emergency:  0800 567 567
24hr Helpline:  0800 12 13 14

The South African Life Line
National Counselling Line:  0861 322 322